We are living in the aftermath of "The Civil War." This time there are no dead bodies and no scorched earth. Instead, Ken Burns's 11-hour history lesson blazed new trails of glory for public television.
The goal now is to capitalize on them.
Preliminary ratings estimate that "The Civil War" was seen by about 14 million American viewers over its five-night run. But when final ratings are tabulated later this month, that number could double, PBS sources say, making it the all-time public TV ratings champ. The title is currently held by the National Geographic Special "Sharks!," which attracted 24.1 million viewers in 1982.
"The Civil War has been made possible by grants from General Motors ..." begins the how's-that-again? funding credit on the home video version of the series. GM, as sole corporate underwriter, contributed $1 million toward the $3.5 million production cost, plus another $1 million to pay for educational kits sent to high schools and for advertising and advance promotion -- a thunderous ballyhoo that many in public TV feel helped inspire the big turnout.
The thing about thunderous ballyhoo is that it will bring viewers in for opening night only; after that, you're on your own. And on its own, "The Civil War" either sustained or increased the size of its audience night after night.
Now, will this triumph of documentary filmmaking, and of corporate public relations, encourage other companies to support public TV projects? "I can't believe that it won't," says a hopeful Ward Chamberlin, former president of Washington's WETA-TV, the producing station for "The Civil War." Chamberlin, who helped get the project going six years ago and still serves as vice chairman of the WETA board, says all the fallout from the show has been positive.
"This is what we've all hoped public television could be," Chamberlin said yesterday. "For me, after about 20 years in this business, it's the most crowning achievement one could have. I knew it was good, but I didn't have any idea it would have the wide appeal it's had."
Indeed, Chamberlin recalls, when Burns approached him during production and said he wanted to expand the miniseries from its planned five hours to eight and then 11, Chamberlin was skeptical. "I told him, 'You're crazy! You can't get an audience to look at that.' " Then Chamberlin previewed the footage Burns had produced up to that point. He was sold.
Another $300,000 to $400,000 was raised to pay for the extra time, Chamberlin says. He also credits PBS for the brilliant stroke of scheduling it five nights in succession, another key factor, he believes, in its success.
At General Motors in Detroit, everybody is happy, happy, happy -- so happy that GM has already agreed to help fund the next Ken Burns film project, a history of baseball that will be told in nine chapters (as in innings). In fact, other companies contacted PBS last week about underwriting the baseball show once they saw what a hit "The Civil War" was. But GM already had it sewed up.
Did WETA approach other companies before GM said yes? "You bet your sweet life we did," Chamberlin says. "Five or six companies said no, but later told me they wished the hell they hadn't. A couple have weighed in and said, 'Can we get in on the next one?' " Chamberlin declined to identify the firms.
George Pruette Jr., GM's director of public affairs and advertising, says it wasn't hard to persuade company executives to pony up the dough when Burns and Chamberlin came a-calling.
"It just sounded so good," Pruette says. "Our management said, 'Sure, let's do it.' There was no hard sell required at all. It fit right into our strategy."
The strategy has GM allying itself with TV projects tied to Americana, which it sponsors under the "GM Mark of Excellence" banner. "I don't know how you measure the success of something like this except in terms of our own satisfaction, and we have a lot of that," Pruette says.
What's good for General Motors was good for the U.S.A. -- this time, anyway. "The Civil War" proved again that the public will respond to well-made and intelligent television, especially if it speaks to what might be called the American soul.
Good TV enhances the quality of life, and nothing seems capable of jolting the public consciousness quite so quickly or dramatically as one of television's nationally shared experiences. "The Civil War" was that kind of experience.
It was a smash hit with another audience greatly prized by public television: members of Congress.
"They were knocked out by it," Chamberlin says. Although he can't envision "any great increase" in federal funding for public TV, he thinks the show will help ensure that "Congress will continue to support us to the extent they have" so far. "One senator told me, 'Now we have something we can point to instead of just "Sesame Street" and the "MacNeil/Lehrer" hour.' "
As part of the promotion of the show, a videotape of the first installment was delivered to every senator and representative, at a total cost of about $4,000 -- a pittance, Chamberlin says, "if it helps get us additional funding for public television."
It should. For years Congress bent over backward to help commercial broadcasting with favorable legislation. Now it caters slavishly to the rich and power-mad cable TV lobby; the Senate, pressured by the cable business, has apparently killed a much-needed cable reform bill that passed the House a few weeks ago.
All these gifts and bequests to commercial interests! Surely public TV deserves a break too.
"If we had one of these every year, it would be great," Chamberlin says of the Burns blockbuster. He knows that isn't likely -- that a program as beautifully done as this one takes years to put together, and a brilliant producer to see it through.
But it's hoped the luster of the show will rub off on other public TV offerings, particularly since PBS has now embarked on a "Showcase Week" of special attractions calculated to stem audience defections. PBS has even taken the unusual step of buying $1.5 million in advertising time on networks and cable to promote its attractions.
Among others benefiting from "Civil War" fever is the National Endowment for the Humanities, which contributed $1.3 million. "We were sort of the first major funder," an NEH spokesman says proudly. "Ken Burns had the federal money in hand when he went to General Motors and used it for leverage."
National endowments of anything seem suspect on Capitol Hill these days, but except for a disgruntled Southern historian or two, no one has seemed to find anything objectionable about "The Civil War."
As for the NEH, its starring role helps ease unpleasant memories of appalling behavior regarding a previous PBS project, Ali A. Mazrui's opinionated 1986 series "The Africans." At the time, NEH Chairman Lynne Cheney hotheadedly denounced the series as "anti-West" and ordered the NEH funding grant removed. It was an unseemly debacle.
For "The Civil War," support came from unlikely corners -- like Johnny Carson's corner at NBC. The "Tonight Show" superstar praised Burns's film on the air last week and urged viewers to watch, a generous gesture considering that part of the last chapter aired opposite Carson's own prime-time anniversary show (which went on to get lower ratings than usual).
Burns was a guest on "Tonight" on Friday, with Jay Leno as host. When Burns went to Logan Airport for the flight to Los Angeles, Chamberlin says, he was stopped 30 times by people asking for his autograph. Says Chamberlin: "He's on cloud nine."
Edward Zwick, co-producer of ABC's "thirtysomething" and the director of the widely acclaimed Civil War film "Glory" -- the saga of a valorous black regiment that fought for the North -- says he was among those spellbound by Burns's film.
"I was in a hotel room in Vancouver scouting locations for a movie," Zwick said yesterday from Los Angeles, "and I would race home to see it each night, and I think I would begin to weep even before the credits ran. It was very moving. It felt like a meditation -- not particularly structured, except in terms of chronology, so that you had the feeling of its being made by someone learning as they delved."
Millions of Americans must have felt that same sense of discovery as they watched the miniseries, and many will be inspired to learn more about a pivotal, epochal moment in the life of the nation. Already attendance is up at Civil War battlefields that went under-visited for decades, and sales of the TV show's companion volume are brisk.
Vibrations from "The Civil War" may reverberate for weeks, months, years to come. The smoke of battle has cleared. This time, there were no losers.